Accelerating Adoption of Advanced Heat Pump Products and Services


This article is the second in a series referencing a paper Sue Coakley and I authored for the Electricity Journal. This special edition of the Electricity Journal titled “Energy Optimization is the Key to Affordable, Reliable Decarbonization” was coordinated by the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP). NEEP’s contribution, Transforming our Buildings for a Low-Carbon Era: Five Key Strategies, discusses the most promising areas to advance building decarbonization and presents initial strategies to begin the transition to a low-carbon built environment.

The following extract from NEEP’s paper focuses on the second of the paper’s five strategies and is augmented by additional discussion of some key points. The full paper includes references and additional topic areas including refrigerant issues and GHG comparisons of heating equipment options.

Strategy two: accelerate adoption of advanced heat pump products and services

Almost all houses in the U.S. have a heat pump, if not three or four. We know them primarily by other names: refrigerator, freezer and air conditioner. Using a heat exchanger, compressor and pump, heat pumps transfer thermal energy (heat) from one location to another.

ASHPs use electricity to provide a combination of space heating and cooling to homes. They have been around for decades. In warmer parts of the country, ASHPs are commonly used for home heating as well as air conditioning. In San Diego, about half of all newly-constructed houses use heat pumps. Older heat pumps, however, do not perform well when outdoor temperatures approach or drop below freezing, at which point the heat pump reverts to inefficient, costly electric resistance heating. This feature has made ASHPs unattractive as a primary heating system in cooler climates.

Fortunately, ASHP product innovation is changing that. Using inverter-driven, variable-speed compressors, advanced cold climate ASHPs (ccASHPs) have radically improved heating performance while maintaining a high level of efficiency at even very low outdoor temperatures (at or below 5 °F). These same innovations also make advanced ASHPs among the most efficient space cooling systems available today. Cold climate air source heat pumps have opened vast new markets for efficient electric heating in cool climate regions including the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest in the U.S. Advanced heat pump technology also provides highly efficient water heating and can reduce water heating energy consumption by up to 63%. In humid climates, heat pump water heaters (HPWH) can also assist space dehumidification. Other types of heat pumps (e.g., ground source and water source) further extend the climate range and types of buildings where heat pumps can meet space and water heating loads.

Consistency in heat pump performance specifications across programs helps ASHP manufacturers and installers scale up their products and services in a manner that reduces costs, increases product availability, expands options and improves customer satisfaction. For example, NEEP’s ASHP market transformation initiative provides a ccASHP performance specification with a list of products that meet that specification, along with best practice guidance for consumers and installers developed collaboratively with industry, government, utilities and advocates. These are used by efficiency and electrification programs in seven states. Similarly, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance (NEEA) is helping to overcome market barriers through a high performance HPWH program with equipment specifications referenced by efficiency programs across the Pacific Northwest. The California-based Building Decarbonization Coalition is leading an effort to reduce installation costs with cost competitive “retrofit ready” heat pump water heaters.

Additional Discussion

The newest generation of advanced ASHPs includes ductless, mini- splits, and variable refrigerant flow technologies. NEEP has developed a cold climate specification that covers a subset of these products that perform significantly better in colder temperatures. These products are primarily produced by Japanese and Korean companies and are disrupters in the U.S. market. They are the dominant products in many areas of the world, but still have relatively small market share in the U.S.

Working with manufacturers on developing product specifications is a critical step. Alignment and advanced knowledge on future product features and performance help manufacturers prioritize research and product development funding, and over time will lead to more competitive product pricing. Various mechanisms for alignment are available including building codes, Energy Star, and federal appliance standards. In the interim, development of specifications by regional market transformation entities (such as NEEP and NEEA) in conjunction with industry provide an initial pathway to focus the market and encourage competitive products.

State and utility programs to support advanced heat pumps will need to include elements to increase consumer awareness, provide support for quality training and installation practices, and reduce consumer costs. A variety of pilot programs for advanced heat pumps are in operation around the country, some of which have been available for multiple years. Many pilot efforts support heat pumps as an efficiency option compared to electric resistance or older, less efficient heat pumps and air conditioners; these program do not include electrification (or fuel switching) but instead focus solely on increased efficiency within electric heating.

What if there was a way to refocus our view of what efficiency means and redefine policy and programs for electric heating? A paper by Joni Slinger and Ken Coburn, also included in this special edition of the Electricity Journal, discusses “Redefining energy efficiency: EE2.0”. This paper reframes policy and programs to support getting the greatest value from low-cost, emissions-free sources; a way of looking at energy efficiency from a broader perspective. The authors note that this change “reflects a transition to energy optimization. In other words, the shift is one from single-fuel energy efficiency to all-fuels energy efficiency.” This simple change in perspective would result in significantly modified policy and programs, with advanced technologies for home heating and water heating becoming a significant strategy element in the next generation of energy efficiency policies and programs across all fuel types. A change of that magnitude would provide a major boost to the market for advanced heat pumps.

This blog is part of Building Decarb Central, a series of blogs and other resources aimed at providing a constant flow of information on building decarbonization. Be sure to check out our web portal for more stories, resources, and information.

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